Dr Arslan Usman of Pangea Connected On How 5G Technology May Improve and Impact Our Lives
An Interview With David Liu
The internet is the biggest educational resource of them all. With 5G’s huge bandwidth, a single 300Mbps connection can give an entire remote village access to online education, business opportunities, influencer programs, and more. And 5G data costs the same as 4G data, so price won’t be a barrier.
5G infrastructure is being installed around the world. At the same time, most people have not yet seen what 5G can offer. What exactly is 5G? How will it improve our lives? What are the concerns that need to be addressed before it is widely adopted?
In our series, called, How 5G Technology May Improve and Impact Our Lives, we are talking to tech and telecom leaders who can share how 5G can impact and enhance our lives.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Arslan Usman.
Dr. Arslan Usman is a System Architect at Pangea Connected, a UK-based IoT and connectivity provider. Having completed his PhD in IT Convergence Engineering in South Korea, Arslan is credited with over 40 academic publications within the wireless communications field, with a big focus on 5G wireless networks.
He’s currently heading up a world-first joint project with Kingston University in London, to connect ambulances directly to hospitals through 5G, reducing triage times and potentially saving lives.
Outside of the lab, Arslan has a deep love for photography; and he’s also an ace magician.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Life never plays out how you expect! You make a plan, then figure out you want something else, then end up going in a completely different direction.
Back in 2006 I wanted to be a journalist. I could write and present, but it turned out I was better at physics and maths — so I switched track to engineering and, after four years, became a telecoms engineer.
Then, I was offered a scholarship to move to Sweden for a degree in signal processing, where I was lucky enough to work with a handful of famous researchers… which got me interested in research. It was exciting — using innovation to stay ahead of the game and think faster than our competition. Describing it as rebellious wouldn’t be far off!
I continued my research in Sweden for two years, then moved to Nigeria where I worked with Alcatel-Lucent (now Nokia), preparing the MNOs of west central Africa for 4G; but after a while, I felt the need to work on projects that were more future-oriented, pushing the envelope and creating new tech.
So I applied for a PhD in South Korea, home of some of the best wireless tech research in the world (namely 5G!), then worked as a research assistant where I managed to write thirty-three publications and won awards for my work.
After the PhD, I had the opportunity to join a leading research group in the field of Wireless and Multimedia Networks at Kingston University in London, where I began working with Professor Christos Politis — a famous name in the field of wireless communication research.
Which led me to where I am today, working jointly with Kingston University and Pangea Connected as a System Architect, leading our 5G projects and strategy. I’ve enjoyed both the highs and lows of my journey so far, and learnt the most from my failures.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
During my PhD, I worked on a military-based project to create a small, trackable device (think the size of a tennis ball) that could record video and audio, then transfer the data wirelessly. We were split into two teams: the one I was on covered locational tracking, and the other handled audio and video.
We spent nearly a year researching, building, and testing the tech in parallel with the other team. And after eight long months, the two teams met up to merge our work into the final product…
… only to find that the technologies we’d used were totally incompatible.
It was a disaster! One that was completely avoidable, had the two teams just discussed plans before (or at any time during) development.
We ripped up all our progress and spent the next two months working double time; and this time, we kept an open dialogue between the two teams.
I was able to take over the role of team leader, and together we salvaged the situation in time for the deadline. Research bodies awarded the project prizes for innovation, the contractors loved the product, and none of them knew just how close we came to failure!
Three lessons I learnt from the experience:
Work closely with your team. Every team member might be the best of the best at what they do, but it won’t matter if your efforts can’t combine into one cohesive result.
Manage your time with precision. If we’d planned ahead and allowed time to fix mistakes, we wouldn’t have been left with just two months to complete an eight month project.
Listen to your peers. The original team leaders ignored suggestions that we should meet with other stakeholders during development, which led to us working blindly and going down the wrong road!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, said this: ‘I don’t take right decision. I take decisions and make them right.’
To me, that quote isn’t just about making the most of your situation. It’s about allowing yourself to take the risk and go for the opportunities in front of you, then committing to the path you choose.
My entire research career has rested on risky decisions, like moving across the world to pursue degrees and work in the telecoms industry. And my family and peers have almost always disapproved of those decisions, always suggesting that I’d stay put and knuckle down.
But with those risks came the most valuable experience and growth, both professionally and personally. From moving to Nigeria to help deploy 4G networks in Africa, to studying my PhD in South Korea. It’s helped me to be the telecoms professional I am today.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I’m thankful for both my parents, but when it comes to my career I’ll always be grateful to my father for his exceptional advice.
Even when family and peers disapproved of my decisions of moving countries or changing industries, my father has been in my corner the whole way through. He never criticizes; instead, he listens, then lists the pros and cons and gives you the space to decide.
Take the project from question one for example. I still remember what he told me when we discovered our huge mistake: ‘One of the most difficult things you’ll face in your life is the decision to quit or press on.’ Which is in fact what made me decide to press on and finish the project.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Right now at Pangea, we’re working on a project to bring 5G and AI capabilities to the emergency services. It’s a good example of a project that’s hinged on the three character traits I’ve highlighted.
The first would be determination. It might sound fluffy, but you need to believe that your work will make a difference. That can take a conscious effort. For us at Pangea, because 5G is so new to the playing field, there wasn’t any substantial research to lean on for our 5G Project. We had to set our goal and stay determined throughout, even when we had to move through uncharted territory or ran into dead ends.
The second is realism. The way I like to think about it is: you should live your life with optimism, but run your business with realism. Throughout the 5G Project’s development, we made regular reality checks: ‘Is the technology viable? Is there a market for it? Where will we find funding?’ Asking ourselves these questions, and finding their answers, has kept us on track.
The third is consistent behavior. No matter how determined you are, or how realistic your goals, you won’t reach them if you work for a week and then get bored! Making a habit of constant research and testing has kept our momentum going through the project, even when we hit obstacles or struggled with direction.
I think these three traits are even more important than natural talent. They’re the main ingredients of making a positive impact, in both business and your personal life.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects? How do you think that will help people? ✔️
Yep! The 5G Project that I mentioned just now is a great example.
We’re working with a government research body and a leading university here in London to bring the power of 5G to the emergency services. Triage in healthcare is an intensive, costly process, so we’re equipping ambulances with 5G tech that’ll let them triage patients over video stream while en route to the hospital. For every minute we shave off the triage process, ambulance trusts could save up to £18m.; and every second counts when it comes to treating a critical patient.
That stage of the 5G Project is almost complete, and now we’re taking it a step further by adding an AI to the mix.
Right now, ambulance paramedics need doctors to guide their critical decisions — for example, a paramedic could perform an ultrasound, but won’t necessarily be able to read the results, so they need a sonographer to view the image and make treatment decisions.
We’re creating an AI assistant to guide paramedics while en-route to hospital, by analysing data and making small clinical decisions. It’ll be able to read sonographs and ECGs, for instance, telling paramedics if a patient needs emergency care before reaching the hospital. This will speed up triage even more and free up on-site doctors to focus on the bigger, more complex issues.
Like 4G, 5G has many different facets, and I’m sure many will approach this question differently. But for the benefit of our readers can you explain to us what 5G is? How is 5G different from its predecessor 4G?
In the 1980s, all we had was voice-only 1G at 2.4kbps. 2G is where things went digital and brought in text messaging in the early nineties. 3G shook things up in the late nineties with mobile data and video calls, and then in 2008, 4G brought us high-speed apps like video conferencing, AR, gaming, and such.
So 5G is the fifth generation of mobile networks. Looking back, you can see that 1G and 3G changed the game entirely, whereas 2G and 4G were more about vastly improving what already existed.
5G falls into the game changer category. Here are the main ways it’s different from 4G:
- Enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB), which is what gives 5G the ultra-fast (over 1Gbps!) connectivity that so many are excited for. Think lightning-quick downloads, VR , HD video streaming, and all that good stuff.
- Ultra-reliable low latency communication (URLLC), which is what it says on the tin. 5G’s beam-forming capabilities make it far more resilient than 4G, so it’s a safe, reliable option for applications that need to be online 100% of the time, like mobile healthcare tech in an ambulance or self-driving cars. And the low latency part means connections will have nearly no delays. Latency is measured in milliseconds (ms); high latency means lots of lag, and low latency means a smooth connection. Compared to 4G’s average latency of 50ms, 5G boasts an average of 1ms, important for tech like precision robotics.
- Massive IoT (Internet of Things), which is how 5G connections will support the incredible number of devices that make up smart cities — think smart lighting, vehicles, drainage, CCTV, buildings, and all of the IoT sensors that will make it possible. 4G supports about 4,000 devices per km², while 5G can easily handle up to 1 million!
- Network slicing, which basically allows you to chop and change the elements of 5G connectivity to suit your purposes. For example, if you’re running a smart factory you’ll need device density to handle all your sensors and robots, along with low latency so your robots’ movements are precise; so you acquire network slices with those benefits. But you likely won’t need high bandwidth, so you can divert those resources elsewhere, or reduce costs by opting out of that network slice.
Can you share three or four ways that 5G might improve our lives? If you can please share an example, for each.
- First off, there’s the digital divide: the issue that many underprivileged people in the world don’t have the means to access the internet, especially in developing countries.
- Often, these countries don’t have the same schooling facilities as other nations… but if they had solid internet access, they wouldn’t necessarily need them. The internet is the biggest educational resource of them all. With 5G’s huge bandwidth, a single 300Mbps connection can give an entire remote village access to online education, business opportunities, influencer programs, and more. And 5G data costs the same as 4G data, so price won’t be a barrier.
- Energy efficiency is another big one. IoT sensors are in constant communication with each other, which can eat lots of energy. But studies from Nokia and Telefónica have found that 5G networks are up to 90% more efficient than their 4G counterparts, so wireless technology is going to help businesses and consumers go green.
- Ericsson’s smart factory in Texas is a good example, where they’ve managed to reduce electricity consumption by 24% and water usage by 75% by implementing 5G robotics.
- Lastly, there’s vehicular communication systems. 5G’s ultra reliable low latency will enable smart cars that can communicate quickly and safely, which will make driving a much safer task and potentially save lives. You can already see this with corrective steering in Tesla’s cars, which comes in handy on rainy days and slick roads. But in the near future we’ll have even more safety features: based on distance away and speed, a car on a collision course could warn others that it’s approaching and that a decision needs to be made, whether that’s a gentle steering correction, an emergency brake, or a life-saving swerve.
Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this 5G technology that people should think more deeply about?
I haven’t seen Black Mirror, but I’ve heard the stories!
The biggest problem with 5G (and every new technology that makes our lives easier and more efficient) is that it leads to diminished social interaction.
Social interaction is more of a choice today than it’s ever been. Do you want to catch up with the cashier at your local supermarket, or would you rather head to your nearest Amazon Go for a seamless shopping experience? Will you go out for a stroll in the park, or will you fight some aliens for a few hours in AR / VR?
There’s nothing wrong with any of these options, and they’ll be the right choices for different people at different times. Someone with social anxiety might prefer to shop without having to speak. Some people use gaming to connect with loved ones around the world who they otherwise can’t interact with. But the key thing to remember is: it’s our choice to make.
And that’s where I think the solution lies. We need to ask ourselves, as individuals: how do we use this incredible technology in a constructive, healthy way? What can we do to ensure that we remain in touch with ourselves and the people around us? What are we willing to sacrifice in the name of convenience?
That’s on us to decide.
Some have raised the question that 5G might widen the digital divide and leave poor people or marginalized people behind. From your perspective, what can be done to address and correct this concern?
That’s a valid concern. Many phones, routers, and other 5G devices on the market are very expensive right now.
However, there are also plenty of devices that are very affordable. They aren’t as fancy or premium as Apple or Samsung devices; but aside from a few extras, like widgets or a higher quality camera, they have exactly the same functionality. The 5G benefits — high speed and low latency — are all there.
On the contrary, 5G will play an important role in overcoming the digital divide. 5G data is about the same price as 4G data, it just works at superfast speeds.
Picture this: you’re part of a low-income household of ten, earning a qualification online. You have 100GB of 4G data monthly. But you’re living in a remote area, with barely 8Mbps.
With 5G, you’ve suddenly got a reliable 300Mbps connection in the same area. Suddenly, you have options: you can stream your online courses without fear of dropping out halfway through. You can watch TED talks without waiting an hour for them to buffer. You can attend video classes, and network with key contacts, without asking everyone else in the house to log off for an hour.
You save time and effort, and importantly, you aren’t frustrated — which is proven to have a significant impact on our learning ability.
Or take remote surgery, for example. Let’s say one of the world’s most expensive surgeons is based in the US, and they specialise in very rare cardiovascular diseases. Their service might cost up to $2000 an hour. When you include the time it takes to fly out overseas, drive to a remote village, then set up and run the operation, you could be looking at upwards of $50,000 for one surgery.
But with the low latency that 5G offers, remote surgery is on the cards. All you need is a pair of robotic hands at the patient’s location: then the doctor can perform the surgery from their own office or hospital, reducing the cost and time spent by magnitudes.
Let’s zoom out a bit and ask a more general question. Based on your experience and success, what are the 5 things you need to create a highly successful career in the telecommunication industry? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Don’t wait for things to come to you; be proactive, and seek out new ideas. When 5G was slowly entering the market, we scoured the world for a 5G cellular router, establishing relationships with vendors so we could start building 5G solutions the very moment we had the tech. Which put us and our partners ahead of the competition.
- Stay innovative, and not just with your products. You don’t need to keep inventing things; you can be innovative with your marketing, your sales, your operations and support services. That’s what led us to develop the AI-assistant alongside the 5G project; to eliminate a potential weakness in our own product.
- Know your competition’s strengths and weaknesses. We had a potential competitor for the 5G Project, but we knew their relationships with healthcare bodies weren’t as strong as ours. So we sought out even more doctors, more ambulance technicians, more paramedics, and used their feedback to differentiate the product.
- Know your own technical capability. Don’t underestimate yourself by only taking on small, safe projects — push the envelope! But also don’t overestimate your capabilities. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t reach for the skies; it just means you need to make sure you’ve got the skills in house before taking on a challenge. Telecoms is highly competitive, and your reputation counts for a lot.
- Cultivate your relationships with customers and partners. This is just as important as developing new products and services — don’t let a transaction be the end of the conversation. Check in with them for a chat, solve their problems, give them options, offer them free upgrades; and do it with their best interests at heart.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I would push for better accuracy of information on the internet. I think people should be held more accountable for the spread of misinformation, whether it’s about 5G, political propaganda, you name it.
We’re living in an information-driven world, so accuracy is more critical than it’s ever been. Censorship doesn’t help anyone, but I think social media companies should be quicker and better at flagging harmful content, at least alerting readers when a dangerous claim isn’t based on any substantial evidence or research.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Head over to the Pangea website! You’ll find plenty of 5G and IoT resources courtesy of the whole team, including blogs, videos, podcasts, and all that good stuff.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.
Thank you for having me!